Roughly 200 people gathered at the Capitol in Salem to protest government-ordered coronavirus lockdown measures they say violate their liberty, and speakers urged steps including purposefully spreading the virus to achieve herd immunity and using guns to defend restaurants that defy state orders to offer takeout meals only.
Many in the crowd didn’t wear masks. Some waved flags decrying far-left group antifa. Chants of “USA! USA! USA” rang out as U.S. flags flapped noisily in the brisk wind.
After more than an hour of speeches on the Capitol steps and as a hard rain fell, the group marched the nearly two miles to Mahonia Hall, the home to Oregon governors, and continued the protest there. They chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “USA!” as they walked.
As they returned to the Capitol more than an hour later, the last remnants of the right-wing crowd encountered a small group of left-wing protesters, some clad all in black, who said they were protecting a Black-owned business. Both sides yelled insults and, as the right-wing group tried to make contact, police arrived en masse to separate the sides. Eventually they deployed flash bangs to keep the right-wing group at bay. At least one person was arrested.
As the crowd returning to the Capitol remained insistent at targeting the small left-wing group, police repeatedly used flash bang munitions to get them to move on. Protesters set off smoke bombs and fired angry words back. “We pay you! We pay you and you abuse us,” one woman yelled.
Another right-wing protester pushed Dave Killen, a news photographer for The Oregonian/OregonLive, down onto the pavement.
Later, as a line of police ensured the right-wing protesters returned to the Capitol and their vehicles to leave, a protester shouted criticisms of police including “Back the blue no more!” Another woman dragged an American flag with a blue line in place of a white one, intended as a pro-police banner, through the mud.
Until late afternoon, the two groups had not come into each other’s view. As the Capitol crowd first headed toward Mahonia Hall, a helicopter hovered overhead, and a message played from a Salem police car that advised being in the roadway is unlawful and to get out of the street. But the warnings were barely loud enough to be audible in the crowd.
When the crowd of about 150 reached the governor’s mansion, they chanted crude protests against China, antifa and, above all, Gov. Kate Brown. The home where Brown lives with her husband, Dan Little, was surrounded by Oregon State Police troopers.
“Nobody in this state has died of COVID. Look it up” on the Oregon Health Authority website, a person yelled at police. Standing in the home’s driveway, two people hold up a banner reading “Arrest Kate Brown / End the Chinese Communist Party.”
“War is coming. This is war. It is time to get out of your house and into the streets,” a speaker said.
“I will shed my blood if I have to. I am not scared,” another speaker, who said he was 28, said. “Enough talk.”
Another speaker is blamed China and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for stealing votes and the election. The crowd broke out in cries of “Arrest Kate Brown!”
Brown did not appear and from outside the home, there were no lights on or movement visible to suggest Brown or anyone else was inside. Brown’s security unit had known since at least Thursday that marchers intended to come to the home.
Outside, event-goers, most without masks, gathered closely together under a humongous American flag and said the Pledge of Allegiance.
Most rally-goers departed by shortly after 3 p.m.
The event was organized by Oregon Women for Trump. Carole Leek, who is retired and lives near Salem, played a lead role. She told The Oregonian/OregonLive the rally was an opportunity for people to vent their frustrations and let government leaders know what they think. She insisted it would be peaceful.
The last right-wing rally at the Capitol, outside lawmakers’ Dec. 21 special session, devolved into violence with demonstrators kicking in the window of a door, trying to push their way into the Capitol after they gained access to a vestibule and reportedly assaulting journalists who were covering the event.
Leek set a different tone early Friday afternoon. “The purpose of today is to stop the tyranny,” she said. “We feel it’s time to open up. A lot of people are angry right now and this is just a place for people to come and voice their anger, to be heard, to send a message to Governor Brown that it’s time to open up.
“If these big box stores can stay open and you can pass people in the aisle, then why can’t restaurants stay open? It doesn’t make any sense. There’s no rhyme or reason to it and we know it and we’ve had enough. We want to open up. We want our businesses to be able to thrive again.”
Salem police officers dressed in riot gear were staged nearby just in case.
Former state Representative Jeff Kropf addressed the crown and urged people to defend with guns businesses including restaurants that operate in defiance of mandates to provide takeout meals only.
“It’s about liberty,” Kropf said. “By the way, just a quick check, does everybody got your weapons on safety? I’m just checking mine to be sure. Today all over Oregon there are restaurants opening up. There are gymnasiums opening up. And you know why? Because they’re going to take a stand for liberty. And I’m telling you, Kate Brown is coming after them. So you need to defend every restaurant, every gym, every business that’s been shut down that’s going to choose to take the risk of opening up — you need to go stand with them.”
Some people in the crowd carried shields and canisters of mace. A few carried rifles.
Incoming Clackamas County Commissioner Tootie Smith, who county voters returned to that body after she lost a re-election bid four years ago, roused the crowd with her speech. “Don’t let the government lie to you … Make no mistake ladies and gentlemen, this is a hard-fought war. But keep the faith, follow your heart and together let’s take back our beloved Oregon!”
She said people should get out and try to catch the virus. Smith, who does not have medical or science training, claimed that herd immunity is what’s needed and suggested getting the virus, not the vaccine, is the way Oregonians should achieve that. “COVID has a 99% survival rate. Instead the government leaders tell us just the opposite, and fear is driving the bus.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has cautioned repeatedly against relying on a herd immunity strategy, saying too many people would be left very sick for a long time or die. Given that 30% of the U.S. population has underlying health conditions, intentionally allowing the disease to spread would be “quite frankly ridiculous,” he said.
The speaker who followed Smith called on those present to adopt a new hashtag, #belikeTootie.
Joey Gibson, leader of the loosely organized right-wing group Patriot Prayer, also addressed the crowd. He wore a “Justice for Jay” cap, referring to the tragic downtown Portland murder of Aaron “Jay” Danielson, who was shot to death by a left-wing protester after a pro-Trump rally.
Gibson railed against China and questioned why China had been allowed to reopen its economy when the U.S., and specifically Oregon, haven’t.
A half-four before the event’s official 1 p.m. start time, Salem police and Marion County Sheriffs cars circled the block, to cheers from the crowd. By 2 p.m., a hard rain was falling in Salem, drenching event-goers.
Some critics also drove repeatedly past the event, shouting loud, crude criticisms of President Donald Trump out their windows.
Leek, the organizer, stressed that she intended the protest to be entirely peaceful. “I just hope people are coming here so they can be heard and be able to express the First Amendment right and to let out any frustrations … This is a peaceful event. We’re not out to cause any problems. We just want to be heard. We want the governor to know what we think and how we feel. Whether she listens or not — well, she probably won’t — it doesn’t matter. We still got to get our frustrations and our voices out.”
There was not much evidence that an advertised live wrestling event also scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Capitol, termed “Grapple at the Capital,” took place.
A poster for the event of Facebook said there will be no masks or social distancing and is intended to take “our freedom and health back!” Salem Reporter reported Thursday that the event’s organizer Mark Tracey, a Hillsboro mixed martial arts coach, didn’t respond to a Facebook message seeking comment. But he said on Facebook that he will set up wrestling mats where kickboxers, wrestlers and jiu jitsu and karate fighters will square off.
At the Capitol Friday, a large sign stood which read “Martial Arts or Martial Law?” But as 1 p.m. came and went, there were no wrestling mats nor grapplers in evidence.
— Catalina Gaitán for The Oregonian
— Dave Killen; email@example.com; @KillenDave